History does not repeat, but it does instruct.
In the twentieth century, European democracies collapsed into fascism, Nazism and communism. These were movements in which a leader or a party claimed to give voice to the people, promised to protect them from global existential threats, and rejected reason in favour of myth. European history shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary people can find themselves in unimaginable circumstances.
History can familiarise, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperilled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny.
Now is a good time to do so.
Over the weekend, the Irishman and I watched Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, charting the 2016 US Presidential election campaign and how the presidency of Donald Trump came about (I know what you are thinking, what wild party animals we are!) The documentary featured a gentleman named Timothy Snyder as one of the commentators, who was identified as ‘the author of On Tyranny.’ Since I found his comments in the documentary interesting, I decided to buy a copy of the book.
It arrived on Monday and I dove in immediately and read it in one sitting. At only 126 pages long, it only took me an hour to get through but, aside from its length, the things that compelled me to read it cover to cover in one sitting, and then read it straight through again the following morning, were the frightening historical lessons contained within the pages which are now scarily relevant to what is going on in the political world today, and which we need to remember and heed in order to avoid ending up in horrifying places we swore we would never go to again. Although this book is primarily drawing parallels between the European political history of the last century and the current situation in America, unfortunately our country is now facing a lot of the same issues.
The basic premise of the book is that, although history does not repeat itself exactly, in times of crisis it can flag up the warning signs that alert us to the fact we are heading down a dangerous path, and provide us with the knowledge and tools to avoid repeating historical mistakes. The book is in a very easy to digest format, with twenty lessons we can learn from twentieth century European political history, followed by a brief explanation of the context and how it may be currently manifesting in our society. Some of these ideas were not new to me, I have seen them mooted in other places during my reading and research over the past four years, but some were and, reading all of them brought together in one place and explained so clearly and concisely, was a hard slap to the face which will make any reader sit up and think, on whichever side of the political divide you find yourself. In the current unsettled and unsettling climate, this can only be a good thing.
I have seen a lot of extremes in political discourse recently, particularly on Twitter, with one side talking about the rise of fascism and the other saying this is arrant nonsense. Whatever stance you take, this book is a valuable read which might make you take a step back and consider the truth of what is actually happening. In this book, the author seeks not to say ‘this is definitely where we are heading,’ but ‘look, THINK, remember, be aware, decide where you stand and take action.’ Prevention is far, far better than the cure that proved necessary in the past. There is a famous quote, ‘eternal vigilance is the price of freedom’ which the author uses in this book. This is true today and, in contrast, apathy and inaction are surely its end.
Given the events of the last week in Parliament, some of the chapters rang with particularly resounding alarm bells. ‘Defend institutions,’ was the first, as we have seen our Parliament battling with the Executive for sovereignty over the Brexit issue and, in the last 24 hours, the independence of the judiciary being attacked. ‘Remember professional ethics’ is another topic that I particularly, as an ex-lawyer who follows a lot of legal accounts on Twitter, have seen being strenuously debated in relation to the Government’s suggestion that they may challenge or disregard the Benn Law passed this week and how members of the legal profession sitting in Government should position themselves if it takes such a step. The pieces of advice regarding critical thinking, being willing to say what you believe rather than following the herd and about using language wisely, gave me pause. The book will make you question who you want to be in the current climate and what you are prepared to stand for. Only by standing out and breaking the status quo can change be effected. How brave are we prepared to be as individuals in defence of our values?
There were a couple of quotes that really stood out to me. “The odd [American] idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens” and ‘The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” Two similar ideas that, given the controversy that surrounds the electoral spending and social media influencing during the referendum campaign, must make each of us question just how freely our votes are given and how much we are being influenced by people with their own agendas on both sides of the divide.
Is this too dramatic? I don’t know. I, for one, am certainly finding the current situation alarming. It is tempting to hide from the turmoil, assume it will all sort itself out eventually and we can just hide under the covers (literal, metaphorical or book, take your pick) until it does. The message behind this volume is history has shown us repeatedly that this strategy does not work. We have to pay attention and take action or accept that we have stood by while our values are eroded. This book is a wake up call. It really should be mandatory reading, particularly for those in positions of authority. Maybe we should crowdfund a copy being sent to each of our 650 MPs. After all, they have little else to do for the next five weeks.
On Tyranny is out now and you can buy a copy here.
Michael Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 11/9, featuring Timothy Snyder is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
About the Author
Timothy Snyder is one of the world’s leading historians of the twentieth century. An expert on eastern Europe and on the Second World War, he has written and edited a number of acclaimed and prize-winning books about twentieth-century European history.
His internationally bestselling Bloodlands won the Hannah Arendt Prize, the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, and has been translated into thirty-three languages.Black Earth was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the annual prize of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee.
He is Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals on both sides of the Atlantic.
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